India Today - - INSIDE - —Shougat Das­gupta

On Jan­uary 7, Shob­haa De turned 70, cel­e­brat­ing it by re­leas­ing a new book with a self-con­sciously ‘ir­rev­er­ent’ ti­tle: Seventy... and to Hell with It! Most fa­mous as a racy chron­i­cler of the (imag­i­nary) love lives of the rich and fa­mous—In­dia’s Jackie Collins, though she has ad­mit­ted to de­spis­ing the so­bri­quet—De is also a pro­lific colum­nist, of­fer­ing opin­ions sev­eral times a week in sev­eral news­pa­pers. She is a pub­lic fig­ure, a voice with con­sid­er­able reach, even in­flu­ence. “One tweet from you shakes up Par­lia­ment!” she quotes an en­thu­si­as­tic pre­sen­ter at an awards show say­ing by way of in­tro­duc­tion.

And when an in­dus­tri­al­ist friend in­tro­duces De to Naren­dra Modi, she quotes him thus: “Who doesn’t know her? For years and years I have been at the re­ceiv­ing end of her crit­i­cism!”

Nearly ev­ery­one De quotes speaks about her in ex­cla­ma­tions, in dec­la­ra­tions, mostly, of awe at her dar­ing. At the launch for this book, ac­tor Kan­gana Ra­naut gushed that De was the “orig­i­nal wild child”, a stan­dard bearer for women who say what they think and live with­out an apol­ogy.

Her indis­putably silly nov­els are pi­o­neer­ing—un­em­bar­rassed In­dian genre fic­tion writ­ten in Hinglish, an ur­ban In­dian ar­got that she can lay claim to hav­ing pi­o­neered. Oth­ers— G.V. De­sani, for in­stance, and later Sal­man Rushdie—have in­vented an In­dian English, dizzy­ingly flu­ent, mu­si­cal, crowded with ref­er­ences and sounds. But their lan­guage is lit­er­ary, while

De’s is the lan­guage as spo­ken—ugly, per­haps, but recog­nis­able, re­lat­able, demo­cratic. She de­serves credit for shap­ing a cer­tain kind of Hinglish— gos­sipy and slangy. It was a dis­tinc­tive voice she hit upon while edit­ing mag­a­zines in the 1970s—Star­dust and So­ci­ety.

De is a self-made woman from a self-avowedly stolid, mid­dle class Ma­ha­rash­trian back­ground. Her strik­ing looks gave her a break as a model; ev­ery­thing af­ter that has been a prod­uct of her drive and smarts. It’s a re­mark­able life. And De has told some of the sto­ries from it in her 1998 mem­oir, Se­lec­tive Me­mory, in­clud­ing the one about how she came to in­ter­view Sim­ran­jit Singh Mann, then ac­cused of be­ing party to the con­spir­acy to as­sas­si­nate Indira Gandhi, for Celebrity, with­out quite know­ing who he was and find­ing her­self ac­cused of sedi­tion.

For all De’s ap­par­ent will­ing­ness to pub­lish first and ask ques­tions later, she has through­out her ca­reer main­tained scrupu­lous si­lences, re­vealed lit­tle of her­self. Seventy... is no dif­fer­ent, bloated with gen­eral ad­vice and self-glo­ri­fy­ing anec­dotes, but scanty on rev­e­la­tion. De is not one to dwell, to wal­low, as she might put it, and so the book takes on a rather brisk tone, hold­ing com­plex­ity at bay with a glit­ter­ing ric­tus grin. She may ap­pear over­whelmed, in lit­eral dan­ger, but she will carry on. She de­mands free­dom for her­self. It is this rather than any par­tic­u­lar political ide­ol­ogy that has got her into trou­ble with the likes of the Shiv Sena. De will sim­ply not be told; it’s this bol­shi­ness, this stub­born re­sis­tance to a world of mansplain­ers that makes De so oddly cap­ti­vat­ing.

For all the free­dom she in­sists on hav­ing to say what she wants, and for all that she has said in the out­lets that pay her to say what it is she wants, she, frankly, has lit­tle of value to say. Much of Seventy... is shal­low and, strangely, for such a stren­u­ous ‘non-con­form­ist’, con­ven­tional. How should women—when a con­ver­sa­tion about sex­ual mores and in­sid­i­ous male ha­rass­ment is tak­ing place the world over—read pas­sages on mar­riage ti­tled “Dul­hanji, ad­just karo”? Or when she ad­mits her “dou­ble stan­dard” that while she be­lieves in a “woman’s right to dress as she pleases”, she also be­lieves that by wear­ing short and tight cloth­ing a woman courts trou­ble? An­other dou­ble stan­dard is her pre­tence that she is an outsider, watch­ing the an­tics of the beau­ti­ful and the damned, while in re­al­ity be­ing a bonafide south Mum­bai grande dame. It’s a pity that De re­sorts in Seventy... to ‘been there, done that’ world weari­ness. “What the hell is ‘truth’,” she writes. “Why point fin­gers at ‘sold out’ journos? Ide­al­ism in this busi­ness is about as use­ful as a fish that flies.” But if you can’t say what you be­lieve, what you think, at 70, then when can you? When are poses no longer sub­sti­tutes for ideals?

De has main­tained scrupu­lous si­lences, re­vealed lit­tle of her­self

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